2012 is shaping up to be one of the worst years for PC sales in the past decade, but Intel is confident its channel partners will start seeing growth opportunities from ultrabooks, a vow it plans to keep by offering "whitebook" versions partners can brand and tailor to meet the needs of specific vertical markets.
According to Sharon Alt, director of North American channels and distribution at Intel, partners are showing a growing interest in offering their own branded ultrabooks, many of which will also include their own custom configurations, such as propriety software or security enhancements. More than 50 percent of partners said they plan to offer these branded or customised ultrabooks, according to an Intel-distributed survey.
Alt said these whitebooks will especially help fuel growth for solution providers that have based their businesses around custom configurations for client devices. As mobile devices like smartphones and tablets become more popular, opportunities for customisation are diminished, Alt explained, so customisable ultrabooks will help offset some of this decline.
"I think that one issue that the channel is certainly facing is that many have made their business on custom configurations or custom integrations of solutions, and as the mobile technology gets smaller and smaller and smaller, there is less ability to customise the devices that they bring to market, at least on the client side," Alt told CRN.
"As a result, what we want to do, as Intel, is offer sleek, innovative designs that they are able to brand."
Many partners plan to arm these custom-configured ultrabooks with solutions that make them especially suitable for vertical markets, like healthcare and retail. What's more, a new generation of enterprise-focused ultrabooks, many of which will run Windows 8, are expected to help revive commercial PC sales.
These next-generation devices will natively support Intel's vPro platform, which provides hardware-level security and manageability solutions for IT, and will also tout convertible form factors, allowing users to leverage them as either a tablet or a more traditional notebook PC. Nearly 140 new ultrabook designs are already in the pipeline.
But custom configurations and new enterprise-specific features aside, ultrabooks, like all PCs, are facing an uphill battle. A weakened global economy, coupled with the soaring popularity of smartphones and tablets, has resulted in PC sales taking a nose dive, with Gartner reporting earlier this month that worldwide PC shipments were down 8.3 percent year-over-year in the third quarter.
Intel, along with other major PC players including AMD and HP, has taken a hit as a result. Earlier this month, the chip maker reported flat year-over-year revenue, suggesting its OEM customers were "taking a cautious inventory approach" due to weaker-than-usual PC demand.
Still, Alt is confident that Windows 8, coupled with new, hybrid form factors, will ultimately allow ultrabook sales to take off.
"I've been around Intel a long time, and certainly we have had peaks and valleys," Alt said. "The key that we bring to market is innovation and excitement about new platforms. And, I think one of the key things that ultrabook brings is new usage models. With [Windows 8] coming, we are really excited about touch. In the future, we are looking at even additional feature sets that will continue to bring new excitement."
Though far from abandoning hope in the traditional PC market, Intel is fighting for a share of the lucrative tablet space, as well. With the launch of its new Clover Trail Atom processors, the chip maker is marching steadily into the mobile market, with new tablet designs already in the works for the fourth quarter and into 2013.
Intel's Alt said that, like ultrabooks, partners will face an opportunity to custom configure and brand their own Clover Trail-based tablets to better target niche markets like healthcare, education and retail.
"There is a lot of hype in the consumer space relative to your traditional tablet-type usage model, but what we are seeing with Clover Trail [is that] it gives us the opportunity to take a more standardised tablet design and apply it to new channel applications, whether its healthcare, whether it is retail, whether it's an energy device," Alt said.
"[Partners can] provide a standard configuration to their customer base, and we are really excited about that."
Intel's foray into the tablet space pits it directly against market-leader ARM, the U.K.-based chip licensor whose ultra-low power processors fuel more than 90 percent of today's tablets. According to Alt, Intel will be able to fight back against ARM using its x86-based architecture, which makes its technology compatible with legacy Windows applications and, as a result, a more natural fit for enterprise users.
Alt said this will also be a win for channel partners in the tablet space, as most of their own custom apps are likely x86-compatible.
"With x86 architecture, we have the ability to have legacy software compatibility," Alt told CRN. "So what I think one of the advantages we'll have in terms of moving into lower-wattage, lower-voltage type devices it that now, a customer or a channel partner can field their application software across multiple devices with an OS that is compatible."
Intel's Alt said the chip maker is well aware that the dominance it has long enjoyed in the notebook and desktop market is definitely something it will have to fight for when it comes to tablets -- but it's willing to try.
"We know that we have been wildly successful relative to desktops, and what we've had to do is bring our technology into the performance plane that you see in these mobile devices," Alt said. "And though we have not been there in the past, we are moving aggressively to get there."